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Road Scholars


[EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was written by Virginie Forain, who has traveled the world with her family, and home-schooled her children using correspondence courses. Her eldest daughter is just finishing nursing school at age 21, cum laude, and her younger daughter is a full scholarship student at Stanford University.]


How will our children carry on their studies as we travel? It's a common question among adventurous parents. Their children's education is often a factor that prevents parents from undertaking a long trip, or taking a job that takes the kids away from a regular school for long periods of time.

Ironically enough, when one opens one's self to the many opportunities of schooling on the road, it becomes for the children and also for the parents an experience so rich that no one in the family will ever forget. One great advantage of being "on the road" is that one is away from the hundreds of routine chores and tasks of household, office jobs, and regular life. It is in fact one of the best times for real education. By real, I mean something not learned in books. The only condition is that one be ready to accept material as it is presented day by day, event by event, and second by second. Whether we are in a car, on a train, or a bus, what our children see from the windows is constantly changing: different vegetation and crops, factories, cities, architecture, the way people dress, their activities, animals, nature, etc. So much can be noticed, marveled at, recognized, offering countless topics for intense discussion. Depending on the age of the child, a lot of learning can be done from a moving vehicle.

One of the most important items to get before leaving is a study book, preferably hard-bound. In France we have found them with one page blank facing a page with lines. They are very good and most convenient, but if they're not available, then blank all the way, as lines will be done as it goes, their size depending on the age of the child and the requirements of the chosen project. Call it a diary, a journal, an art book, a book of reports, essays, stories--either true or fantasy--it will be all at once. The child will love it. He will do his best in it. He will practice a lot of skills because of it.

The toughest problem in my experience is that when one is traveling, there can be very little time to actually sit down with paper and pen. Here is a classic example of a very busy schedule. You arrive in Los Angeles at night. The first day you go to Disneyland, the second to Knott's Berry Farm, and the third to Hollywood studios. The next day you are back on the plane to some other destination. This last Thanksgiving we were with friends at Sea World, the next morning at the Wild Animal Park, and the next day was my birthday. I chose to go out with my husband and to leave my son peacefully at my friend's home to do his school work.

He made a good report of his day at the Wild Animal Park, narrating the train ride and, on the blank page, he drew the train, animals, etc. It was a choice that we had to make. Do we keep in motion or do we let him pause, allowing him time to digest the past outings and reflect on what he saw, and to give him a chance to practice his skills of writing, composing, spelling, punctuation, drawing, presentation, and the completion of a project that will make him very proud. In the afternoon he worked on his Cub Scout project, making a boat for a regatta. One of the oldest sons of our host family helped him to use different tools. He had a great day just being home.

It is not always easy to stop for a full day to accomplish some school work. Often, one has to take it half a day at a time. For example, one can start activities the next day only at 1pm, and help the child to get up early and find a peaceful spot. In a hotel room, a cousin's house or at friends', it is not always obvious, but kids can be comfortable in the smallest of corners. For these few hours, define the work and be sure it gets done without delay, because the afternoon and evening are all booked. Another option is to come back from the day's outing by 5 or 6pm and right away hit the books and pens. Plane trips are a great place to study. A child can be comfortable with his little table, and get a lot of work done in transit. If your child is young and needs help with his homework, a plane gets you close with nowhere to go, without phone calls or dirty dishes.

The child "on the road" must always carry his backpack full of school projects with him, not in the hold of the plane or the trunk of the car. It also helps for a child to carry something he really likes to do with his hands, like wood carving, beading, drawing, embroidering, stamp collecting or collage making. My children have done a lot of school work in airports, stations, trains, boats, subways, national parks, beaches, hot springs, and more. We must help the student to understand that it is better for him to use the "traveling time" to perform school work and upon arrival be free to move about. There are times when your child will find it difficult to concentrate, which may be a good time for him to read a good book. You will be grateful that television won't be there to prevent it from happening, so be sure you have taken with you a good supply of these books! Many children who are not great readers will enjoy reading with a parent just because the opportunity is there. You can also buy books along the way--they may become treasured souvenirs!

When my boy was seven, he used to make a game of writing on a notepad all the strange things he could see from the car window. A lot of little projects can be accomplished while traveling, like writing to grandparents or friends along the way. Postcards (big sizes are better), on which you may draw lines, or a beautiful pad of writing paper the child will have chosen himself, or a blank piece of paper on which he can draw and write about what he has seen and experienced will all bring great results.

Another kind of project that young kids love to do is to make little books. Let's say you have been at the zoo. Then, back at what you call home, you may cut one, two or three pages of white paper in half and staple or sew them in the middle, and then let the child draw the animals, write their names and a few facts about them, what they eat, the way they walk or the way they live. If they are very young, let them cut the pictures from the leaflets that you brought back. Have them use tape or glue and crayons to decorate. You can also help them to write a few words under the pictures. The title of the book in itself can be a master project.
Kids can go home after a week, a month or six months of traveling, with a collection of these little books that they will always keep.
They may bring back one on medieval castles, one on New York sky towers, one on sea shells, on kangaroos, one on the grand canyons, and one on Disneyland.

If you are visiting a foreign country, it can be a good chance to start on a foreign language. Be sure to bring with you the materials needed, head phones and tapes can be useful. The child will love new ways of expressing himself and of studying with different materials and situations.

When my daughters were nine and six, we decided to go to India, a country that we love dearly. We landed in New Delhi. On the long taxi ride afterwards, the girls were glued to their windows, their eyes bigger than a dozen encyclopedias. I had intentionally chosen the old town so we would not miss the buzz of Indian life. Later we went down in the streets looking for a restaurant. We were amazed by the hundreds of scenes so unfamiliar, so incredible. Our children were like walking on another planet. We passed by a stationery store and each one chose a good solid bound notebook to use as a journal. On our second day we were fortunate to join a wedding procession that was parading the streets, elephant, camels, horses, musicians, dancers. How the girls landed on the camels and rode for the next two kilometers is all told in their journals. It is also recorded how they bought bananas, papayas, and peanuts from kids younger that themselves sitting in the street with wide smiles, how the laundry man with a huge turban on his head came in the morning to ask for clothes to be washed, and how he got them clean by beating on the rocks by the riverside, and how they loved to drink the sugarcane juice that was crushed by a huge machine operated by hand power. They did not miss a thing. They recorded every day as we moved on to different places. Even when we settled down in a large house by the sea, there was still plenty to be told.

We got organized to get back more seriously on a regular schedule. Mornings are usually best because of fresh energy and it is nice for the kids to know that they will be free after lunch. They were able to go deeper in their maths and sciences, but also they studied yoga, Indian dance, Hindi alphabet and language, they found out a lot about the sea and nature, they learned to cook an Indian meal, and make chapatis (bread), cooked directly on an open fire. They sang Indian songs, played drums, did a lot of breading, and learned embroidery with the lady next door. We were employing a tailor who taught the oldest to sew on the sewing machine.

They ran just like the neighbor kids when coconuts fell on the ground, to be the first to get them. They learned to play their games, and rode with their fathers on the buffalo carts. They drew water from the well and carried their baby brother in a cloth on their backs. I could go on and on about what they discovered, what they experienced in such a different society, and how well they blended with the full scene.

What they learned could never have fit in a classroom curriculum. They were enriched and happy. Traveling has no limits.

Seven years later, we returned to India for six months. The girls were teenagers. Their backpacks were much heavier, as we all know the weight of high school books. I had subscribed them to a serious correspondence course for high school students. It was no matter where they were, they could send their tests to their teachers, their questions if any, give a return address and receive corrections and grades. To be honest, it was not always easy to do a lot of school work. Some days so much was going on that they would have been fools to bury themselves in a biology book. If that afternoon, for example, hundreds of people wearing red robes had come to walk barefoot on the sacred fire without being burned, or if it was market day, or if they were invited to a wedding, or if the elephants were out on the street, but they learned to regulate their study time and catch up on the days when the action which was slow. We all knew that to experience a different culture and different ways of life would be useful to them for many years after.

Last June my 10-year-old son and I went to Paris for a month. We cruised around the Latin quarter, the Serbonne where ancient homes with inner courtyards paved with cobblestones, and enormous wooden doors with impressive knockers made us reflect on the lives of their previous tenants, nobles, barons, princes...I was eager to show him the Cathedral. the old churches with stained glass windows, sculptures and frescoes, which told us more about history that any book would have done. We even visited the oldest house of Paris (14th-century). We took pleasure to study the architecture of the many bridges on the Seine River. If we had more time, we would have seen more impressionists, and back home we still enjoy looking at the books of the French painters.

I lived my first twenty years in Paris. I never had much interest in the historic and artistic value of the city. As soon as I came back with my son, I wanted him to discover and appreciate its beauty. In that process, I realized for myself, how great Paris was. Therefore, I understood that to help a child to learn something, it was best to learn it with him, and to discover it together on the same level and with the same interest. Traveling in places which are often new to everyone, will allow this to happen in a very pleasant way.

My son is now studying the middle ages, and drawing castles. It takes me back to ten years ago when, with his sisters we were two weeks in Germany and visited a lot of castles, with their fortresses and dungeons, and had a close view of drawbridges, moats and thick stone walls. He is fascinated with the heraldry and the suits of armor of the knights. He would not mind at all being over there right now. He would be sitting on a stone bench, and with his drawing pad in hand, have a real good look at a castle, and try to understand how it got built, and how people lived in it. We have fantastic books in this country, but there is nothing like climbing to the top of one of the castles and feel how dark it was and how cold people must have been, and estimate the amount of wood they needed for their fires.

Children are grateful for different ways of education. They respond so well to new formulas of learning and they appreciate the change and the challenge. I am never afraid or concerned about their school achievements. When I take my children on long field trips, they learn plenty.

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